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L. Neil Smith's
Number 531, August 9, 2009

"Hadn't I made it clear that Ambrose is a cat?"

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Government Protections
by Rob Sandwell

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

Almost without fail, when the discussion about free markets begins someone brings up the example of WalMart as a justification for the need for central authority. WalMart practices unfair business practices. WalMart exploits Chinese child labor. WalMart puts smaller operations out of business. WalMart treats their employees unfairly. And we need a powerful state to protect us from these problems.

First of all, WalMart using it's huge purchasing power as leverage to negotiate for lower costs on goods and services is not an unfair practice. Most sellers will give bulk discounts to their customers in order to secure their patronage. WalMart exploiting foreign slave labor may disgust us, but in many of those cases the children and peasants working in those factories, while working under conditions none of us would ever accept, are still working under conditions far better than their peers. The inability of small operations to compete with WalMart is their own fault, not WalMart's. Anyone who can offer a quality product at a competitive price will always be able to compete. If you can't, that's the result of your product's quality, or it's price. Not the result of what your competition is doing down the street. The argument that WalMart treats its employees unfairly is a non-starter. Those employees negotiate for their wages and benefits. They compete for those wages through their value to the company, and if they don't like working there, they're welcome to work somewhere else. If WalMart is so untenable a situation for its employees, then they wouldn't have any. And in cases where there were employee abuses, those employees pursued legal recourse, as is their right.

But the silliest part of the entire argument is the statement that all these issues make the case for government. Even if we grant the premise, that WalMart is evil and corrupt and we need to be protected from their actions, then we must objectively say that government is part of the problem, not the solution. Any time someone argues that an ongoing problem is justification for government they are ignoring the fact that we have government now, and it's not fixing the problem. In reality, millions of people already don't do business with WalMart because they find their business practices objectionable, and when those lost profits outweigh the benefits of those practices, WalMart will change the way it does business. In fact, that has happened, and they are. You can find more information about it here.

You see, government isn't protecting you from anything. In point of fact, government policies create suffering that would not otherwise exist. For instance, WalMart is among those pushing for a new nationalized health care plan because it will increase costs on companies like Target and make it harder for them to compete. This is what government "solutions" achieve. Which brings us to the subject of vice laws.

Vice laws, such as those regarding drugs, gambling, and sex workers, will never successfully address demand, and so by extension supply. Drug dealers still have a market, gamblers find places to lose their money, and because of the difficulty they have in bringing their product to market and the lack of real competitiveness in their industry, they are able to charge enormous prices at the consumer level. Worse, when customers are wronged by those with whom they do business, they lack any legitimate avenue of recourse, and must turn to violence or crime in order to seek restitution.

In places where prostitution is legal, sex workers are able to negotiate favorable terms with their employers, receive regular medical care, and seek legal redress for any wrongs they suffer. Where it is illegal, they are plied with drugs, extorted and beaten, and have no legal rights. In fact, studies show that where prostitutes work indoors in legitimate businesses they are less likely to be victims of violent crime. Your personal opinion of prostitution is not what is at issue here. In San Francisco they are considering spending 11 million dollars a year to battle the sex trade. That's 11 million that was seized from decent law abiding people. 11 million they could use to pay their mortgage, put their kids through college, or reinvest in a struggling economy.

You are more than welcome to look down on these women and their chosen profession. You can tell people you find it disgusting, sinful, reprehensible, and evil. You can choose not to do business with them and encourage others to do the same. But making it illegal isn't addressing the problem. Instead, vice laws are creating problems.

Some people will argue that regardless of the actual result of prohibition, it is an important moral statement for a society to make. It doesn't matter if it doesn't work, it says we don't support this behavior. But in reality it does matter if it doesn't work, because the money used to support it is being stolen from free people all over the country. And the government isn't accomplishing their stated goals, because it still happens, and the violence being used to enforce it is hurting many more people every day than can be shown to be harmed through it's practice. Lysander Spooner wrote that, "Vices Are Not Crimes," and he was right. But the murder, theft, and predation the state resorts to in an attempt to suppress vices is purely criminal.

Many people take issue with the harvesting and selling of elephant ivory. So, after receiving international pressure from customers and animal rights organizations, EBAY has decided to stop allowing the sale of ivory on its website. It didn't require a law or state to accomplish this, it happened as a natural result of the pressure placed on EBAY by the marketplace.

For the record, I don't support prostitution. I think it's sad, unhealthy, and emotionally crippling. I also think that people should have every right to do stupid, dangerous things on a voluntary, contractual basis. If a person wants to engage in promiscuous sex, in return for a ten dollar movie and a fifty dollar meal, that's ok. But if that same person wants to engage in promiscuous sex in return for sixty dollars, we'll spend 11 million dollars per year to hunt them down, arrest them, and put them in prison with murderers and rapists.

I can't support that either.


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